When she visited the Advanced Placement classrooms and saw mostly white students, Talisa Dixon knew things needed to change.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, near Cleveland, is 77% black or multiracial. But the superintendent saw little diversity in the most rigorous academic courses.
“It was blatant,” Dixon recalled. “There were inequities, opportunities some students didn’t have.”
Today, participation — and success — in those courses has improved so much that the national College Board placed the district on the 10th annual Advanced Placement District Honor Roll in December. Dixon credits the results to an equity policy, a plan to eliminate practices that give some students an advantage while placing others, including students of color, at a disadvantage.
Now superintendent of Columbus City Schools, Dixon said she’s excited to watch similar work unfold in Ohio’s largest district. The Columbus Board of Education is set to approve an equity policy of its own soon.
Other school districts throughout Ohio and the nation are taking part. The new resolutions, policies and statements are set against a backdrop of nationwide unrest and protests calling attention to racial injustice, following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May.
Officials in the Akron and Youngstown school districts in northeast Ohio, which already have equity policies, have recently committed to revising and strengthening them to more explicitly address racism’s impact and how to mitigate it.
In central Ohio, districts such as Hilliard, Upper Arlington and South-Western have created task forces to explore solutions, involving both school employees and outside professionals.
Many districts have also released statements condemning racism and pledging to change.
Experts say that while the momentum spurred by current events is great, effective policies must go beyond what school board governance coach AJ Crabill calls a “well-intentioned piece of paper.”
“If they really want to cause change, they need to have some kind of measurable outcome,” said Crabill, with the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, including Columbus.
“Equity means so many things to so many different people. Without a clear definition, it’s easy for nothing to get accomplished.”
Unlike equality, which is treating everyone the same, equity in education is recognizing some students need more support or resources than others.
An effective equity policy specifically recognizes groups that often start behind, Crabill said in a meeting with officials from Columbus City Schools last week.
It also lists specific goals for those groups, such as elevating particular areas of academic achievement, and how to accomplish and measure them.
One example is allocating a higher ratio of counselors to those groups. Another is finding ways to encourage the district’s most effective, experienced educators to work in schools with higher concentrations of such students.
In districts where a majority of students are children of color, or live in poverty, officials must also consider members of other student demographics who historically struggle, such as children who are homeless, in foster care or are affected by incarceration, he said.
“By calling out particular groups of students … it isn’t saying ‘The rest of our students don’t matter,’” Crabill said. “It’s saying, ‘Until we make it right for these students, we haven’t made it right for all our students.’”
Those intricacies are why the Columbus Board of Education, which originally discussed approving its equity policy Tuesday, has agreed to hold off and further hone its plan.
On June 2, the board hired its first chief equity officer to oversee the work. Dionne A. Blue, currently chief diversity officer for schools in the Evansville, Indiana, area, arrives in Columbus on Aug. 1, with a $141,000 annual salary and a two-year contract.
Blue’s input will help refine the policy, and it’s possible the board will seek more guidance from outside experts, said Columbus Board of Education President Jennifer Adair.
“We want it to be done right,” Adair said.
Such work takes time, said Ethan Ashley, co-founder of School Board Partners, a New Orleans nonprofit group that supports school board members in efforts to be anti-racist.
“Our young people and our families deserve more than just lip service,” Ashley said. “We’re proud of the folks digging in and doing the work right now, not just for this generation, but generations to come.”
In Hilliard, Samantha Chatman, principal of Alton Darby Elementary School, will chair the district’s justice and exclusivity task force that will present recommendations for action to the school board. Its 20 members include representatives from across the city.
It will be emotional, personal work, said Chatman, the district’s only black administrator.
“We’re in a crisis in our world,” she said.
Change starts with open, honest conversations — especially with students, Chatman said.
“Our kids are reading stories. They’re on social media. If they’re going back to school in the fall, they’re going to be talking about these issues,” she said. “We have to be prepared.”